Saturday 24 March 2012

Summer time and referenda

It is time for our regular twice-yearly debate over what the UK's time zone (or zones) should be, and over whether the clocks should be changed twice a year.

A piece on NDR Radio this morning explained what has been going on in Russia. Since the move to summer time in March 2011, the clocks have not been changed in Russia, on the orders of President Medvedev. Summer time lasts all year. He was reported as thinking that repeated change disturbed the biorhythms of people and animals, particularly milking cows. (The claim should clearly be restricted to animals that have some interaction with people. Bears deep in the taiga are unlikely to read or hear that the clocks have changed. But many animals could be affected, including wild animals that get used to crossing roads by a certain light, and suddenly find that at the appropriate time by the Sun, the roads are busy with rush-hour commuters instead of empty.) It seems that some political parties want to go back to a twice-yearly change, and that Vladimir Putin is likely to implement this.

The claim that biorhythms are disturbed by a twice-yearly change smacks of pseudo-science, although I acknowledge that the alignment of the light with the clock does strike me as odd for a couple of days after each change. If there is to be sensible argument about this question, it is likely to be about such things as energy consumption, accident rates, the moods of people when their hours of work limit their enjoyment of sunshine, and the needs of businesses to have time zones as closely aligned as possible with those of their trading partners. The latter point came up in connection with Russia. Businesses in Moscow find it awkward to be three hours ahead of Germany, rather than two, in the winter.

A noteworthy feature of debates over time zones and whether to change the clocks twice a year is that the factors to consider are both numerous and disparate. There is no obvious way to weigh them all in a single balance. Only the most convinced utilitarian could think that there was.

Another feature is that one of the factors is how people feel. Psychologists can advise us on how access to daylight influences our moods, but the relevant notion of how people feel is broader than that. It involves sentimental attachment to traditions and to habits of life, and the special joy that some feel at witnessing the dawn and others at witnessing the dusk.

A third feature is that how people feel is central to the process of weighing the factors. Some people think that accident rates are the most important thing, others that energy-saving matters most, and others that business efficiency is of the first importance.

All of this leads me to conclude that the question of how we should set our clocks would be an ideal question to put to a referendum. The relevant features of the question are these.

1. We need a single answer. We do not need to agree on hours of work. Different people can work at different times. But we do need to be able to say "meet me at noon", or "the train leaves at 1832", and all mean the same thing.

2. While there are experts on different aspects of the question, there is no expert on how to combine the conclusions on specific aspects to arrive at an overall answer.

3. If we were to hold a referendum, we could draw on the wisdom of crowds. Lots of non-experts, voting independently, can produce just as good an answer as a committee of experts, and sometimes a better answer. The difficulty would be to get people to vote independently. Clever propaganda, crafted be special interest groups and disseminated through the media, would persuade people to try to sway their friends.

There would be a challenging question of how to divide the territory into areas, the inhabitants of each of which would vote for conclusions that would apply within their areas. For example, should Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland hold separate votes?

On the one hand, it would seem right to divide the territory into the smallest areas that could sensibly have their own time zones, so that local circumstances could be reflected in decisions. On the other hand, one of the considerations that may influence people is the desire to have the same time zone as prevails in neighbouring areas. Someone, every 15 degrees of longitude or so (or 30 degrees with two-hour jumps), must live near a time zone boundary, but each of us would rather it was someone else. That desire would lead people not to take so much account of local circumstances. Differences of latitude can give rise to the same problem. One of the objections to the UK's aligning its time zone with France and Germany (UTC + 1 in the winter and UTC + 2 in the summer) is that the Sun would not rise until very late in Scotland in winter. One solution would be for Scotland to have its own time zone, but life around the border would then get more complicated.

Perhaps the answer is to have two or three rounds of voting. After the first round, people could see how much tendency to difference there was, and could change their votes accordingly in the second round if differences mattered enough to them, and if they saw that the only likely way to remove the difference was for them to change. Just for once, tactical voting could be a good thing.


  1. I think that all people in Europe should have the same time. But they could get up and start working at different hours, more in accordance with the sun. So for example people in Russia start to work at five in the morning, and people in Portugal at ten. (Or should it be the other way round ?)

  2. Et si on se levait au chant du coq ?